Reading Adler's List

An attempt to read all the titles in Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of Western Civilization.  And some other stuff in between.

 

Pensees the Provincial Letters

Pensees the Provincial Letters - Blaise Pascal Much like Molière, Pascal’s influence is probably best appreciated if read in French. His style, satire and wit are heavily commented on and, since I don’t read French, I’m sure I’m missing much of what makes Pascal influential.

Pensees is the skeleton of a book. Never published during Pascal’s life, it existed simply as scraps of paper until someone decided to compile and bind them. A collection of one-liners and short writings, in style they are reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or the Tao Te Ching. In substance, they are not that far off either. It’s not Stoicism or Daoism, but there is a stress on humility, escape from the trappings of vice and the dilemma of happiness. Of course, the most well known and best writing comes in Section 3, The Necessity of the Wager. Despite what we imagine the truth is behind our existence, he sums it up nicely. “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.” (Pensees, 233, pg. 80).

Toward the end of the Pensees the writing takes on a much more Christian orthodox tone. His dismissal of Islam and contesting beliefs in favor of Christianity lacks the self-reflective tenor of the earlier writings. Belief is no longer a wager, it becomes conviction.

The Provincial Letters takes up the second half of the book. Pascal writes in defense of the Jansenists against the accusations of the Jesuits. The letters attack the spurious causistic morality of the Jesuits and contain debates of finer points of Catholicism such as the existence of efficacious grace. In the time they were written, they may have been compelling reading on the esoteric aspects of faith but, not surprisingly, they are hard to get into today. Unless you are a hardcore Calvinist or something.



Under a Velvet Cloak - Piers Anthony Seventeen years. After And Eternity was published, all was quiet with the Incarnations of Immortality series until 2007. Piers Anthony then published Under a Velvet Cloak and I was freaking thrilled. It took a few years, but I finally got around to getting the book and, in anticipation, I just re-read the entire series so I would be refreshed on all the details. Seven books and around 2100 pages I read just in preparation to read this one.

Don’t.

I still have carryover teenage fandom for Piers Anthony and his books, but there were parts where this book is just disturbing. And I have a job where, on a day-to-day basis, I deal with some seriously fucking twisted things. But this book has taken the Incarnations of Immortality series into a weird, child/teenage temptress sex romp. Seriously, like every other page. It’s Incarnation porn.

Clearly Anthony has his mind on other things at this point in his career. For those of you who have fond memories of the original series, I’d recommend leaving this book alone and keep those memories fond.


And Eternity - Piers Anthony This was the second time that Piers Anthony was going to end the Incarnations of Immortality series. The first ending was book 5, then he added two more books: the quite good For Love of Evil about Satan, and this one, about God.

The book follows the ghost Orlene as she goes on a quest to revive her dead ghost baby who had been kidnapped by Nox. Sound silly? Well, that’s because it is. In the process, there is some Incarnation politicking and a weird Lolita-like romance that seems creepily rationalized by Piers Anthony.

Things wrap up in a satisfactory matter, but it kind of feels like Anthony is phoning this one in. I’m sure it’s difficult to keep a series fresh after 6 books and, despite my nostalgic love of the series as a whole, it probably reached its expiration date with For Love of Evil.
For Love of Evil - Piers Anthony Yeah, four stars. I don’t care. I dig it. Anthony makes a fairly complex character with his sorcerer-monk-Satan character, Parry. Mixing in a millenia's worth of history in the battle between Good and Evil, the motivations and machinations of the Incarnation of Evil are layered in a way to tie it in to the previous five books. Anthony does an admirable job making a cohesive story which can span several hundred years. Plus, his take on the role of morality for the iconic sin-seller is unique and pretty fearless for a mainstream novel.

This is the writing I remembered and loved about the series as a kid. Thanks, Piers Anthony.
The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien,  Christopher Tolkien Tolkien is the myth maker. With the tone of an ancient scribe, he relates the pre-history of Middle Earth to the forging of the Ring. Almost Old Testament heavy, Tolkien’s sense of history for his world is filled with epoch-making familial lines. Weathered genealogical branches twist among themselves to form a massive canopy under which the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. The Silmarillion is a Biblical Arthurian Gilgamesh which Edith Hamilton and Joseph Campbell would collaborate on before running off to the Gray Havens. Except cooler.
Milton's Selected Poetry and Prose - John Milton Milton’s religious poetry masks a more defiant, unsubmissive soul. In Aeropagitica, he rails against censorship. In Samson Agonistes, he expands on the last 10 verses from Judges 16 to show a Samson who, blinded, chained and without strength, rediscovers his will to resist. In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he advocates for the right of the governed to overthrow tyrants and justifies regicide. Milton was kind of a badass. At least on paper.

However, he is also pretty boring. Maybe it’s the poet in him, but his papers on topics such as divorce and the value of the Commonwealth are verbose and overdone. Paradise Regained lacks all the drama seen in the first few books of Paradise Lost and presents an uncomplicated Jesus in the face of devilish temptations which, apparently, were not very tempting. As for his collection of shorter poems, unless you really are in to literary criticism and dissecting poetry, they probably won’t resonate much (with exceptions for L'Allegro and Il Penseroso).

At the end of the Norton Critical Edition, There are about two hundred pages dedicated to short papers analyzing Milton’s various works. Most of them I could do without, though I would highly recommend Sharon Achinstein’s paper Samson Agonsites and the Drama of Dissent starting on page 626.

Milton mixed his religious convictions with a strong belief in the rights of individuals to shape their own lives. Though I didn’t really enjoy many of his writings, he earns respect. In his eloquent defense for free speech, he leaves the means for his own impressive legacy:
For books are a not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do not preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively and as vigorously productive as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Aeropagitica, pg. 341


For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman

For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman - Jonah Raskin, Eric Foner Raskin does an admirable job sifting through Abbie Hoffman’s life to get past the legend and to the man. Many of the stories, exaggerations and blatant lies were created by Hoffman himself in his effort to dramatize his life and the movements he joined. He recreated himself often and convincingly which makes Raskin’s task that much more impressive.

Regardless of what you think of Hoffman, he had the showmanship, the savvy and the moxie to bring media attention to his causes. Whether he deserved it is another matter.


Being a Green Mother - Piers Anthony Initially, this fifth book was meant to be the last of the Incarnations of Immortality series. Piers Anthony lets his imagination flow a bit more freely in Being a Green Mother. Most of the loose ends are tied up fairly well and the Kaftan family tree is filled out. The book is much less formulaic than the previous four. The story is not so much about adjusting to the immortal office of Nature as much as the process of assuming it.

The Emerging Police State: Resisting Illegitimate Authority

The Emerging Police State: Resisting Illegitimate Authority - William M. Kunstler, Michael Steven Smith, Michael Ratner
Michelangelo’s David is a good example for all of you. This is the only representation in art of David before he kills Goliath. All the rest- Donatello’s bronze, the paintings- show him holding up the severed head of Goliath, as Goliath leads the Philistines down the hills of Galilee toward the Israelites. Michelangelo is saying, across these four centuries, that every person's life has a moment when you are thinking of doing something that will jeopardize yourself. And if you don’t do it, no one will be the wiser that you even thought of it. So, it’s easy to get out of it. And that’s what David is doing right there. He’s got the rock in the right hand, the sling over the left shoulder, and he’s saying like Prufrock, “Do I dare, do I dare?” Pg. 27, Commencement Remarks to the School of Architecture and Planning State University of New York at Buffalo, May 13, 1995.
This is a story Kunstler told often and one with which he personally identified. Controversial, and not without detractors, Kunstler was an outspoken advocate for the oppressed, the rebels and the hated. Some of his speeches (a few which survive only because the FBI secretly recorded them) and trial transcripts are included. Quick reading, a little repetitive, occasionally funny, and a good introduction to the values which propelled him. For Kunstler, the courtroom was not a place for him to defend his client against indictment; it was his forum to indict the system. He refused to balk against power. He refused to submit to the rules. He dared.

Endgame, Vol. 2: Resistance - Derrick Jensen There’s some murky morality in Jensen’s second volume of Endgame. The first couple hundred pages are, again, somewhat rambling and continuation of a call to conscience. But then it starts to become more focused and we finally get to the purported title of the book. Assuming everything is fucked, what’s the endgame?

Jensen’s basic premise is that preservation of a healthy landbase is the primary ethic which should guide our actions. The current threat to a healthy landbase is civilization. The Therefore statement is then pretty obvious.

Jensen makes a point of side-stepping any direct suggestions, but his endorsement of violence is clear. Much of his writing is designed to counter the objections of those he has encountered in the activist sphere. He rejects pacifist arguments, attacks the historical efficacy of non-violent actions and relates some of his efforts to learn what that next step should look like. Desperate times and such.

But this is where it falls apart for me. Jensen wants to tear it all down, return us to a state of nature and then let society reorganize itself in small clusters of eco-conscious communities. But the problem is just as obvious. There is no definable entity which he is resisting against. He is rebelling not against a thing or a group, but against our own natures.

We can’t go back. Despite all the sanitized nostalgia for existing in a pre-civilized state, we couldn’t get there even if everyone wanted to. Unless there is some catastrophic circumstance, humanity is not going to unlearn what it knows. Someone, somewhere (or many people, most everywhere) will eventually continue to produce, consume and build. Civilization comes out from innovation and innovation is the story of our species. And I’ll assume we are trying to save our species along with the planet. Like it or not, it has to be about responsible civilization, not destroying civilization. Otherwise, aren’t we just immersing ourselves in fantasy? A blood-soaked, ultimately oppressive, fantasy?

Jensen’s passion is engaging. He wants action. He wants results. He wants courageous stands and justice for those that plunder the future. Unfortunately, his endgame looks just as ineffective as the current game.


Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization - Derrick Jensen To summarize 400 plus pages: We can’t live without clean water and healthy land. Our culture destroys both and will continue to do so. So why aren’t we stopping this? More importantly, how do we stop this?

Jensen fills his book with anecdotes, factual nuggets and some lecturing. It’s unfocused and, after a while, a little annoying. But he has some excellent observations mixed in. He makes a rather fascinating connection that we (as a society) exhibit the characteristics of abuse victims. Our culture is harming us but we fail to acknowledge it. Even when we recognize it, we tell ourselves we are helpless to change it. That there’s nowhere to turn. This is just the way it is.

I get the impression that Jensen himself is ambivalent of what we, or he, should do. He advocates extreme measures but fails to take them himself. His value system is also unelaborated. Yes, we value water and land. But the real dilemma is when that value is placed against another value- like the value of human life. He never really gets beyond the simple assertion that he values nature, we need nature to live and therefore defending nature is like self-defense. But defense against who? The government? corporations? Joe the logger? Ourselves?

I was ready to write Jensen off until the last forty pages or so. He started talking about fulcrums and bottlenecks. If you want change, where do you apply pressure to get the most leverage? If you want to stop production of a thing, what does that production rely upon? He begins the critical analysis of how a minority can force change. It’s not about changing minds or changing habits of the majority. He skewers the ultimate ineffectiveness of the current mainstream environmental movement. The letter writing campaigns have failed. Petitions have failed. Lawsuits have failed. People chaining themselves to trees have failed. For Jensen, it’s no longer about persuading, it’s about doing.

I’ll be curious to see where he goes in Volume II. I just wish he could get there faster.
Paradise Lost (Modern Library Classics) - John Milton, William Kerrigan, Stephen M. Fallon, John Rumrich The Greeks have Homer, the Romans have Virgil and the Christians get Milton. Agamemnon sought the fall of Troy, Aeneas founds Rome but Satan falls from Heaven, founds Pandemonium and makes mankind fall from Grace. Epic poems don’t get much more epic.

Milton incorporates classical mythology into Hell’s demonic pantheon. Dense like Dante, Paradise Lost can be a subtly classical education in itself much like The Inferno. The Modern Library edition is heavily footnoted and provides the references needed to really appreciate the work. I went back and forth from obsessively reading the footnotes to ignoring them. It’s important background, but sometimes you just got to let Milton flow.

Satan is, of course, the (morning) star of the poem. The beginning has the same defiant, self-important tone which gets countless college freshmen ignored every day. His resolute dedication to pride over submission is almost Greek tragic. He knows he can’t win. He knows he’s lesser without God than with, but he refuses to submit. And that’s why he’s so captivating. Everyone likes the underdog.

The poem began to lose me as it went on. The devil becomes more petulant, God becomes more boring and Milton becomes more moralizing. The last couple of books are little more than a Cliff Notes version of the Old Testament. By the end, Milton demonstrates his point that the desire to know God is the root of ultimate sin and the key to grace is accepting God, not knowing.

Even if you don’t agree, it’s epic and erudite and worth reading. Plus, for metalheads everywhere, it’s the inspiration for Danzig’s Black Aria. So read and rock.


Wielding a Red Sword - Piers Anthony It’s a clever twist, making Mym a Hindu and interjecting him into the occidental role of Mars. And it works. The series was becoming (and still is) somewhat predictable at this point- mortal becomes immortal, meets other immortals and then has some interaction with Satan. However, Mym’s outside the Western notions of Good and Evil and it adds a little unpredictability back to the series.


With a Tangled Skein - Piers Anthony It’s definitely a step-up from Bearing an Hourglass, but the third book in the series still struggles to match the first. Sort of a prequel, the plot starts a couple generations earlier in the Kaftan family. Fate, meanwhile, weaves and shapeshifts through Satan’s ploys.

Writing the book through the eyes of Niobe won’t win Piers Anthony any gender or cultural sensitivity awards. Even I cringe at the stereotypes he freely uses.
Ethics - Baruch Spinoza, Edwin M. Curley, Stuart Hampshire, Edwin Curley I’ve never been so ambivalent about a book before. It’s infuriating, but hints at brilliance. It’s fundamentally flawed, but an attempt at perfection. It’s just better than me.

Spinoza uses Euclid’s geometric proof process. He applies it to Descartes’ foundation to demonstrate God’s existence and what that means for our lives. As with Euclid, Spinoza begins with definitions to each book, sets some axioms and then proceeds to make his proof through propositions, definitions, demonstrations, corollaries and scholiums. Though just shy of 200 pages, it is an incredibly dense book and any comments on the substance have to be accompanied with the disclaimer that they are summations of disciplined arguments and, quite frankly, I may have just got it wrong. Reading Spinoza is not fun. It’s not easy. It’s math homework. And most people who read Spinoza are probably liberal arts majors. And they are liberal arts majors for a reason.

But the fundamental problem I had with Spinoza was his literal attempt to prove metaphysical ideas through geometric proofs. Geometry is set up for it. There are physical characteristics which, by definition, set the terms of a proof. A line has infinite points. The sum of a triangle’s interior angles equals 180°. He attempts the same with ideas much less definable. He makes definitions which in turn lead to proofs which prove his definition.

For example, in Book 1, Spinoza begins with his definition that a “thing is said to be finite in its own kind that can be limited by another of the same nature.” (D2). This leads to the proposition that any substance which exists must necessarily be infinite (P8) because it is the essence of a substance to exist (P7). Since two substances of the same nature cannot exist (P5), there is one infinite substance of that nature. Existence is the essence of that substance (P7, Schol.2) and all attributes must come from this substance (P10). Therefore, infinite attributes comes from an infinite substance, which, by definition exists. (P11). Spinoza defines God as that absolute infinite substance consisting of an infinite number of attributes (D6). By defining “finite” in a way that requires an “infinite”, he creates God before he even has to prove it. Thus, by page 7, Spinoza gets to his homerun proposition, Proposition 11, that God exists and is infinite.

Anyway, this is a Goodreads review and not an attempt at a Philosophy 101 paper. Spinizoa’s purpose is to get to the title of the book: ethics. How are we to live our lives? By Books IV and V, Spinoza lays out his understanding of Human Bondage and Human Freedom. It’s ultimately a stoic vision reminiscent of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius with some Cartesian additions. A good life consists in understanding the reality of God and overcoming emotions. The closer we come to understanding our reality, we gain an intellectual satisfaction deeper than mere emotional happiness. Ideally, we train ourselves through rational thought to understand God through our intuition.

Spinoza and Descartes both believe intuition is the way to true understanding. Descartes asks the reader to meditate on clear and distinct truths which open the door for this understanding. Spinoza uses Spock-like deduction to train the mind to reach intuitive understanding. Though I was put off by Spinoza’s convenient definitions, it is still a masterful rational effort at defining and building a way to understand our world. Just don’t expect it to be enjoyable.



Rules for the Direction of the Mind

Rules for the Direction of the Mind - Rene Descartes The book ends right when it starts getting really interesting. It’s an unfinished work and ends just as he’s getting into the Cartesian coordinate system as an example of deduction from clear and distinct truths. I’m sure he would have totally lost me had he continued with his geometric examples, but I’m intrigued. At the very least, he has reinforced my belief that understanding geometry is a key component to understanding him and the Greek philosophers who came before.

Most of this short book is Descartes cutting through bullshit. He reinforces his belief that all thinking must begin from a focus on basic principles which can be reflected and understood intuitively. Again, a return to his “clear and distinct test” for truth. He has no patience for thinkers who wish to complicate simple concepts and hide behind needlessly verbose positions to mask their simple conclusions. Likewise, he has no patience for those who wish to build sublime arguments based on shaky foundations.

Though his arguments will never persuade those who insist that basic, first truths can be found through logical deductive or inductive reasoning, I find Descartes’ shameless willingness to embrace intuitive understanding liberating. Though finding foundation in intuition, he still remains rigorous in establishing semi-objective standards to find truth.

In conclusion, many can and do effectively disagree with his arguments. However, he was brilliant and sincere. A seemingly rare combination.



Currently reading

The First and Second Discourses
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Judith R. Masters, Roger D. Masters
The Scar
China Miéville